Open, interoperable cities

The first CityCamp, in January 2010 was a memorable event for a bunch of reasons.  It simultaneously marked the birth of several civic technology initiatives — the CityCamp unconference series itself, which has grown like gangbusters since then, Code for America, which has since just finished its first year and is growing like mad, and of course Civic Commons, which started as a partnership between Code for America and OpenPlans at that very CityCamp.

Despite all the delicious awesomeness that went down that cold, rainy, snowy weekend, there’s one thing that has stuck w/ me more than anything else.

As folks who’ve been to unconferences know, the traditional opening activity is to pass the mic around the room and have each person introduce themselves and say exactly three words that describe them.  At this CityCamp, I remember that my words were “making” “cities” “easiertouse” (so I was cheating a bit, obv – I’m kind of hit or miss w/ the three words).

The line that has stuck with me still from this CityCamp was Phil Ashlock‘s opening 3 words.  Phil said “Open” “Interoperable” “Cities”.  Kind of a mouthful, and perhaps a bit abstract if you don’t sit around every day thinking about what “open” and “interoperable” mean in the context of cities, like we do.

Phil’s line stuck with me so much because the more I think about this (and now here we are, two years later), the metaphor of the “city as internet” just keeps getting stronger and stronger for me.  We’ve focused on various aspects of this over the years — collaborative culture, open source development, etc.  But the more I think about what really interests me, and what’s a really powerful idea, it’s this one.

Open means extensible — free to change and grow and adapt, without asking permission.  Interoperable means that small pieces know how to work with one another.  Taken together, you get one of the core ideas that has made the Internet such a place of innovation.  When you can build on the web (or on your city) at will, and you can connect to all the other things that have been built, you can pretty much do anything.

In the Civic Technology land, we spend a lot of time building civic apps.  Startups, cities, and independent developers are making all kinds of great stuff.  BUT — and I think this is the big idea — what if we were to focus less on building more civic apps and more on making all apps more civic?

For a concrete example: we’ve done a lot of work in the 311 space — coordinating an open web standard that supports citizens reporting issues from wherever they are, and routing them directly to any city’s management system. And lots of people are building apps that directly support this activity.  This is super great, and is without a doubt a huge step towards making cities more accessible.  But imagine that instead of (or in a addition to it) using a dedicated 311 app, you could report an issue to a city from whatever app you’re using?  Take a photo with Instagram of a pothole, and send it to your city right from there.  That’s what we mean by interoperability.

When cities are open and interoperable, you should be able talk to your city from any device and nearly any app, just the way you can send a tweet from any device and lots of apps.  That’s powerful, and that’s where I’m interested in seeing things go.

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